COURTESY PENNY THOMAS
Penny Thomas of Captain Cook, Big Island, enjoyed cross-country skiing in January while vacationing in Colorado.
‘I’m kind of living in the moment’
Stem cell therapy in China helps a Big Island Parkinson's patient reinvigorate her life
A Big Island woman who had stem cell surgery last May in Beijing for Parkinson's disease is among those amazed at her transformation.
"I just don't realize it at times because I'm kind of living in the moment ... dealing with what's right in front of me," Captain Cook resident Penny Thomas said.
Three million stem cells were planted in the 53-year-old woman's brain last May at the Tiantan Puhua Neurosurgical Hospital.
The stem cells were provided by the Stem Cell Research Center at Beijing University from a donor's retina.
Thomas had advanced Parkinson's disease, a disorder that occurs when certain nerve cells in the brain that produce dopamine malfunction or die. Dopamine is a chemical responsible for the body's movements.
"I was watching myself die," she told the Star-Bulletin in October. Her husband, Robert, and their daughter, then 15, had to help her do almost everything, she said.
The stem cell therapy gave her life back, she said.
Thomas resumed swimming and spent five weeks in December and January cross-country skiing, sledding and doing "other winter fun things" in Pagosa Springs, Colo.
"I adjusted quite well to the 8,000-foot elevation. I didn't push myself too much, but had a lot of fun," she said.
She lived 20 years in the Pagosa Springs area and has family living there, she said. Her daughter, Cheyenne, now 16, goes to school there.
COURTESY PENNY THOMAS
Thomas poses with her neurosurgeon, Dr. Xiaodi Han, after undergoing stem cell treatment for Parkinson's disease at Tiantan Puhua Neurosurgical Hospital in China.
In October, Thomas visited friends in the Midwest and went horseback riding during a week in Colorado.
"I'm feeling really well," she said, noting she used to take three different medications. She now takes only Sinimet, used to increase dopamine levels in the brain, and it has been reduced to 200 milligrams per day from 800, she said.
She is also taking amino acids with an herb called macuna pruriens that makes dopamine naturally.
She is working with Drs. Clif Arrington and Alan Phalli on the amino acid program.
"I can't believe she's been so active," Arrington said. "She's doing surprisingly well. She's reducing her medication and is still maintaining without any reoccurrence of the Parkinson's symptoms."
Since she is backing off of the medicines, Thomas said, "Once in a while I develop tremors in my right hand, but I adjust amino acids with macuna and it balances out fine."
"Eventually the implanted stem cells will take over and produce enough dopamine on their own," Arrington said.
Doctors in Beijing want her to return in May or June for a scan so they can see how the stem cells are doing, she said. However, she probably will have the scan in Honolulu, she said.
She was the first American to have the treatment for Parkinson's, the Beijing hospital said. The cost for the surgery and a two-month stay in China was $26,000, she said.
"It's something that has helped me tremendously," she said, "and hopefully it will help other people, too."